TRAVERSE CITY — Traverse City Area Public Schools wrote checks for nearly half a million dollars to superintendents in 2019.

Those payments mean TCAPS spent more on superintendent pay than any other district in Michigan — outstripping the next biggest spender by $35,000.

Data released Wednesday by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy showed TCAPS spent a total of $486,061 on superintendent salaries and benefits — $405,361 of that on superintendent salaries alone, which is also the most in the state. The figures include base salary, benefits, pension, insurance, annuity, travel expenses and an “other” category.

Mackinac Center Director of Education Ben DeGrow said the information was obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests and figures provided in the district’s transparency information on the TCAPS website.

Prorated compensation of former superintendents Paul Soma and Ann Cardon along with the daily-pay for former interim Jim Pavelka were included in the survey. The $197,500 salary of current Superintendent John VanWagoner was not included as the data only surveys the 2019 calendar year.

Soma’s 2018-19 salary included a $7,000 boost to $165,000 in December 2018 along with a 20 percent bump in his retirement pay. Soma announced his retirement a little more than a week after TCAPS trustees adjustments. He finished out his 17 years with TCAPS on July 31, 2019.

Board trustees unanimously approved Cardon’s three-year contract in June 2019, a deal to pay her $184,000 per year. Cardon unexpectedly resigned 78 days into her tenure through a deal brokered with the district. The details of her separation agreement, which included a $180,000 payout on top of the nearly $40,000 she earned during those 78 days, were released in late October.

Cardon’s $180,000 payout was the crux of a recall effort against three TCAPS trustees, and a call for “fiscal responsibility” is one of the core values of TCAPS Transparency, a group formed in the weeks following Cardon’s resignation.

Justin Van Rheenen, one of the recall petitioners and a co-founder of TCAPS Transparency, said the district’s 2019 spending on superintendent pay continued pattern of ill-advised and unwise planning from board trustees.

Van Rheenen criticized the board for acting as if “the bank account of the school district is theirs to spend at will without repercussions.”

“Something has to change, and something has to change now,” Van Rheenen said, pointing to the November board election. “The time for change has already passed, but the time to reassess where we should be as a district starts now.”

After Cardon’s resignation, Pavelka earned a daily rate of $1,141 until he turned the district over to VanWagoner on July 15. VanWagoner’s mid-July start makes him the fourth superintendent to lead TCAPS in less than 12 months.

VanWagoner questioned the legitimacy of the numbers, calling them “convoluted” and wondering why his current contract is available next to the data if his salary is not included.

“I know what they’re doing, but the problem is they’re pulling from a different source of data, ... which is downloaded from the state,” VanWagoner said. “Unfortunately, given that, it’s going to look very suspect to anybody who looks it thinking that’s the salary I’m making.”

DeGrow said collecting data from nearly 600 school districts comes with difficulties, which are not made easier with several transitions at a district’s top post.

“That’s one of the weird challenges of doing this database,” DeGrow said. “It’s hard to line up the current contract when you have that many superintendents changing.”

Christine Thomas-Hill, TCAPS associate superintendent of finance and operations, said 2019 was not a normal year for the district.

“We had a transition year. It’s not a typical year, and it isn’t what we pay a superintendent,” she said.

Romulus Community Schools was the next highest district, paying out $452,499, also to multiple superintendents. The highest figure for a single superintendent was Roseville Community Schools at $409,760.

Detroit Public Schools, which has the largest enrollment in the state at more than 50,000, spent $399,010 total on its superintendent with $309,115 on the salary — nearly $100,000 less than TCAPS.

Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District, which serves 16 area school districts including TCAPS, was ninth in the state. A total of $361,952 was spent on superintendent compensation — $234,908 going to Superintendent Nick Ceglarek, more than $75,000 to pension payouts and another $21,000 to insurance costs.

Kingsley Area Schools was the second highest non-intermediate school district in the five-county region, sitting at 171st in the state with a total of $218,695. Leland Public School spent $192,118, 261st in Michigan.

Kalamazoo Public Schools spent a total of $340,038 to take the top spot in 2016, the last time such data was collected. No 2016 data was available for TCAPS, but the district’s 2012 total figure was $218,795 with a superintendent salary at $155,000.

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